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An essay should be more than a random list of points or a collection of facts. There must be an argument and this argument should unfold across the essay as it is read. This takes careful planning - and planning takes time. It is the most challenging part of the creative process and should not be overlooked.

Most writers will produce a linear plan outlining how their argument will develop.  However, this may not work as a starting point for every writer, so if this is the case for you, then consider these options as well: 

  • Discussion: use somebody else as a sounding board for your initial response to a question.
  • Mapping: maps are a useful way to prompt visual thinkers to connect and order their ideas. They can be as detailed or as basic as you like, handwritten or produced using freely available software. Producing such a map after you have received supervisor feedback on an essay can be an effective way to summarise a topic for revision later on.
  • Free-writing: uninhibited, stream-of-consciousness writing as an initial response to the question. If you find it difficult to get started, just start with a few questions about what you need to find out and see where it takes you. There will be crossings-out and perhaps no punctuation or paragraphing, but none of this matters at this stage
  • List: bulleted or numbered list of each new point in the argument. These might represent essay paragraphs or stages in your argument.

Regardless of your planning method, you need to consider the following:

  • Remember that in an exam you will be handwriting your essay in limited time and so have to get your plan right first time. It is important not to lose the ability to organise on paper.
  • The plan is your answer to the question and NOT a way of simply gathering all the facts onto one sheet of paper. Essays should be argument-driven, not fact-driven
  • It makes sense to begin planning before you have finished your reading so that you can see where the gaps in your understanding or knowledge might be. You then move from collecting examples, quotes and ideas to trying to turn them into an argument. It helps to leave plenty of time for this stage so that you have enough time to go back and do some more targeted reading.
  • It follows that by the time you make your plan you ought to have a good idea of what line you mean to take in your essay. In effect the plan is a way of test-driving your ideas - if something doesn't hang together in a plan, then you probably need to rethink that part or re-organise your argument.

Activity: Practice planning

Produce an essay plan using whichever method(s) work best for you based on one of the following: 

  • One of your own essay questions. This can either be a current essay or one you have already submitted. Trying to reduce an essay you have already written to a series of plan points is an interesting exercise which enables you to reflect more easily on how effectively you structured your argument.
  • This example question: How extensive was illiteracy in early modern England and to what degree did it disadvantage particular social groups?

Example plans are available below:

Example plan: list

Example plan: map

Example plan: freewriting